Back to top

From Oolichan to Enbridge: Getting to the Heart of Cumulative Impacts Management in the Northwest

January 13, 2013

A guest blog post from Gerald Amos, Headwaters Initiative

Background: In November 2012, 170 resource management practitioners, scientists, academics, and community members came together at a conference in Smithers, BC  entitled “Adding it All Up: Balancing Benefits and Effects of Resource Development”. The conference, organized by the Bulkley Valley Research Centre, focused on the issue of cumulative impacts management in the northwest region of BC. Gerald Amos from the Headwaters Initiative and a member of the Haisla Nation captures the challenges and opportunities facing the region well in the following excerpts from his remarks at the conference (click here to listen to  Gerald Amos' full speech).

Cumulative Impacts

[T]his subject goes to the heart of what I have spent my life doing – trying to figure out rational ways to deal with a world that is changing and protect what I, and my family and community hold dear. My perspective is informed by my experience - I was the leader of the Haisla community of Kitamaat for 12 years, a community that was, and still is, in the midst of profound change due to industrial development. Most importantly I am a father and grandfather, a brother, son and husband. What motivates me more than anything else in the world is protecting my family and their interests and future.

In my community the cumulative impacts from industrial development are not abstract technical or academic issues. The cumulative impacts of development are issues that dominate our spiritual, cultural, political and economic lives. We live it and breathe it, literally, every single day.

Our single largest food source – the oolichan of the Kitimat River, were obliterated by industrial development. We once harvested and processed 650 tons of oolichan a year prior to Alcan and Eurocan, and the logging of the Kitimat Valley. Oolichan not only fed us – making grease was a time of renewal, of gathering, and it was central to who we are, and kept our hearts healthy literally and figuratively. Grease hasn’t been made on the Kitimat River in decades, and the few remaining oolichan were tainted – they literally tasted like the chemicals that polluted the Kitimat river.

The Kitimat River was once one of the most productive salmon rivers on the north coast, with great runs of all species of salmon and steelhead. But it was also home to some of the most extensive and continuous clear-cut logging in the history of our province, TFL 1, and the Kitimat River is now a classic example of a “blown out” coastal river, with just a fraction of the productive capacity it once had. Where the river once ran in deep pools beneath towering old growth spruce, it now runs in a mile wide gravel plain that changes with every storm. That it has any salmon abundance at all is due to a large, and expensive, federal hatchery that all of us pay for (but not the timber companies that came and went).

During my childhood, when we wanted a crab feed, or some ducks, we literally got what we needed or wanted right in front of the village. Now Minette Bay has heavy metal concentrations 10 times as high as Burrard Inlet, and the entire end of Douglas Channel has been closed for decades to harvesting shell fish because of pollution from toxic industrial chemicals.

Until the late 1990’s the power line from Kemano ran right thru our village, right next to our children’s school, despite the long-known health hazards of high voltage power lines.

The Alcan crew boat that was used for years to service Kemano, the Wachwas, threw an enormous wake because of bad design, and it eroded hundreds of feet of Kemano shoreline, and literally washed away the graveyards of our parents and grandparents. We had to fight hard to simply convince Alcan to slow it down when it went past our graveyards.

Grizzly Bears were almost wiped out from the Kitlope Valley, a remote, unroaded river valley, but one accessible to jetboats. The great decline began during the construction of the Alcan powerplant, when construction workers hunted them for recreation, and continue with the advent of trophy hunting.

I could go on, but I’ve made my point – cumulative impacts are not an abstract to me and mine. Haisla don’t talk about “eroded ecosystem function” or “valued components”, they talk about salmon and oolichan being gone. It’s about our food, the traditional foods that keep us healthy. Every single aboriginal community in this region can show its own examples of these losses, what we now call “cumulative impacts”. There are very real reasons why First Nation’s seem to oppose most development. It is not an abstract concept to us, it is our reality, and the damage it has caused has not just been to “ecosystems”, but to a people, and their language, culture and identity. I hate harping on this, I hate sounding like a victim, but this is the reality of First Nation’s in Canada, and our common heritage whether we like it or not.

If government and industry continues to fail to fundamentally understand the extent and importance of this issue in this place, in this time, then we should all go home now, because it will be a conversation uninformed by reality. And nothing positive or concrete can possibly come out of this conference, and others like it, absent of frankness, honesty and collaboration.

It’s also my opinion, but an opinion informed by 30 years of real events and real conversations, that industry and government are only here because they have to be. They have been forced to deal with these issues, if even a cursory level, by events and pressure from First Nations, as well as the settler community. I hope I am wrong, but I am betting I’m not. I’ve had the frank talks off line with the managers who actually care, I’ve seen the leaked memo’s between government resource bureaucrats and industry on how they intend to obtain social license for projects from First Nations through manipulation. I know that going to a conference on cumulative impacts is likely a lot easier, and seemingly safer then actually dealing substantively with the cumulative impacts of major industrial development.

It is no great secret that engaging people in “discussions” is an effective strategy that can give the illusion of action, that something is actually being done. I know the intention of this conference was the opposite of that, the intention is to move the conversation forward in a positive way. I just don’t think adequate motivation to do that exists yet in some of the key players.

Having said that I know that there are people in government and industry who wish they could do the right thing, who really care. However, they can’t, because it could cost them their careers.

I also believe that resource conflict is going to intensify, as we have seen in regard to the Northern Gateway project, until we reach a point where we honestly start listening to each other. How far down the road towards more serious conflict likely depends on how serious government and industry believe the people of this region are when they say they will protect their way of life, their food, their salmon, their coast. How serious industry is about dealing with cumulative impacts will also define the extent of that conflict, and hopefully, its resolution.

Our experience has been that these conversations, the workshops and conferences, tend to get bogged down in technical minutia. We have made an art form of creating endless lists, creating little boxes in which to park issues, thereby turning something that is so fundamental and elemental – the air we breath, the water we drink and the food we eat – into endlessly complex and increasingly meaningless talk. When I was chief we called it being sucked down the sewer of process.

I think it is pretty clear – dealing with cumulative impacts is not a technical challenge, - we know what’s needed, we know how to monitor landscapes, and wildlife populations, and we know how to do the science. This is not a science problem, it is a political problem. This is not the first conference on cumulative impacts, the technical methodologies to monitor impacts are well established, and readily available. We know, and we have known, for a long time, what the right things to do are in regards to salmon, wildlife, water quality, air quality and cultural survival. There are no silver bullets in science awaiting discovery, there is only us, and the choices we make.

Another truth is that the simplest and most direct approach to controlling the extent of impacts due to development is simple protection – setting aside landscapes from all development, or specific types of development. Absent of getting serious about this issue, outright protection, be it formal protection or simply refusing to allow development to proceed, or destabilizing the capital markets, is a rational option for communities serious about addressing impacts from development. If communities are determined to have a voice in these matters, then they will find ways to express their will.

What we need to deal with is the present conflict between two solitudes, two world views. On the extremes are those who think any and all development is desirable and good irrespective of the consequences, that money and profit will cure what ails you. On the other extreme are those who think humans should not be here at all, that we are a blight on the soul of Gaia. However, First Nation leaders and communities must bridge both realities, and resolve the conflict of values, because we literally have to balance economic development, and our problem with 3rd world poverty levels and all the grief that entails, with protecting the intactness of the landscapes that define us and feed us.

Absent of rational approaches, the impacts of actual and proposed development have to include the conflict that is brought to all our communities from irrational, ill considered and rushed development. The stress, the waste of time that could be spent on other issues, the money and time spent fighting some of the wealthiest companies the world has ever known. These too are real impacts.

I also know, from decades of sitting at tables negotiating agreements, treaties and language – government and industry still believe there is some short cut around aboriginal rights and title, some way around the inescapable fact that Canada and BC saw fit to not sign treaties with many western First Nations. This historical fact is the fundamental defining reality of resource extraction and development in northern BC today.

It is not the outrage of ENGO’s that drive investment insecurity around development in BC, but section 35 of Canada’s constitution, and the fact that we understand what it means. How much time does government and industry spend, how many thousands of man hours, and millions of dollars, trying to get around that single, inescapable fact of life? It is an irrational, wasteful and ludicrous way for us to treat with each other.

Right now our provincial and federal governments believe that Canada’s rational choice is to extract and export its raw natural resources as fast as possible to generate as much profit for industry, and some tax revenue, as fast as they can. They to do so even if the profits and jobs from that development accrue to foreign workers and foreign companies and governments. The impacts from this rush to ship out our national wealth at this pace and scale has consequences and impacts, not just to First Nations, but to the very institutions of democracy that are fundamental to all of us. One would think, one would hope, that faced with an embarrassment of mineral and energy riches, we would be coldly rational and calm, try to have a conversation together as Canadians about what’s important to all of us, and figure out a way forward that reduces and resolves conflict, honors our obligations to future generations, and pays at least lip service to sustainability. One would hope.

Industry focuses on opportunity and profit, as it should, we do have trillions of dollars of coal, gas, oil, copper, gold, moly and silver underneath our lands. But they do not deserve praise for creating jobs in the pursuit of riches, but neither do they deserve condemnation in pursuing profit – that’s how our system works. But they do have the same
responsibilities of citizenship and civility as any other sector of society. To tell the truth, and act responsibly.

As well, holding government accountable has to come to mean more than berating regional resource agency bureaucrats. I would much prefer it if certain Ministers, prime and otherwise, were here to hear our complaint. My preference is dialogue, but a dialogue with definable and measurable substance. Dialogue that reaches real outcomes, and leads to real and measurable change.

So, industry and their touts in government have some problems – this region is full of people who don’t quite see it the same way as they do and it also seems they have found their voice, and they are making trouble.

These folks, both native and settler, think wild salmon are really cool, that pristine coastlines are important, that rivers should run free, clean and be full of salmon. Maybe even that the world needs to have a conversation about sustainability, and this region is a good place to start. Folks more and more are prepared to stand up and insist they have a say in the future of where they live.

And especially, industry and government have a continuing problem with section 35 of the Canadian constitution – try as they might they can’t seem to get around it.

So. We have, and have had for some time, a deeply polarized chronic conflict between different sectors of society, and it is especially intense in our communities in this region.

Industry keeps insisting that if only environmental review processes were streamlined, development would happen faster and the recent federal legislation suggest to us that the resource industry’s powerful lobby has succeeded in once again convincing government that’s the reality, and that there is a short cut to social license for massive and inherently impactful projects.

The reality is the more EA processes are short-circuited and compromised, the more unattainable social license becomes for these projects. As a conservation campaigner and FN conservationist I say, “make my day, streamline away”. That attitude is job security for ENGO’s.

But it’s not necessarily the most rational or best choice for communities.

This place of ours, is a tough place for developers. The complaints of the BC mining industry, that BC is a difficult place to do business, are absolutely true. The people of this region stopped the international salmon farming industry dead in its tracks, and removed two MLA’s from office over that issue. Ironically both MLA’s then had careers advising industry on how to get projects going, and that speaks volumes about how clearly industry has been thinking about these issues.

We have stopped one of the largest companies in the world, a company that never loses, dead in its tracks. Royal Dutch Shell.

We have confronted the Tar Sands industry and the federal government over a pipeline, and have likely killed that 6 billion dollar project. We have boxed a Prime Minister and Canada’s largest pipeline company into a corner they can’t figure out how to get out of.

We stopped a pulp mill at Onion Lake. A Moly mine in Smithers. A gold mine at Amazay lake, and another at Fish lake. Another on the Morrison River. We insisted on more serious approaches to environmental assessment, and lo and behold reasonable people found some of the projects were in fact ill considered, and that the impacts outweighed the benefits.

But we also allowed several LNG projects to proceed, and we chose not to oppose the Galore Mine when they did what we asked them to do – move the road route off of the lower Stikine and Iskut rivers. In fact, the people of this region are quite capable of making rational and informed decisions, sometimes in favour of development, sometimes not, and in fact, have been insisting on doing that for some time.

Industry has deep, deep pockets. Northern Gateway is unprecedented in its attempt to buy social license. A 100 million slush fund just to get us to accept a pipeline project. Endless commercials in newspapers and on TV. Dozens of highly paid consultants. And they are going backwards faster and faster. Didn’t work, won’t work, can’t work. Because it fundamentally is absent of an understanding of who we are, and what this place is. Industry has the money, but we own the streets, and we understand the power of the folkstorm.

There are no shortcuts around us. Just talking about “studying” cumulative impacts isn’t going to solve this conflict. Another endless process designed to thwart change instead of foster change will solve nothing. In fact it will make things worse. The more trust is eroded, the more difficult the task of rebuilding it will be. Pretty is as pretty does, and the provincial governments budget to deal with cumulative impacts is smaller than the environmental communities. So please tell me, why should our communities believe government and industry is serious about cumulative impacts in the face of that simple fact? How gullible do you think our community leaders are?

But this challenge is not just industry and governments, it’s in all of our laps. If we cannot grapple with this issue, have a civil dialogue, and actually find solutions, in a purported democratic and civil country like ours, you tell me where else on earth do we have a chance?

As my friend Bruce often asks:

If not here, then where?

If not now, then when?

If not us, then who?

Gerald Amos, Director of Community Relations, Headwaters Initiative

November 2012, Presentation to “Adding it All Up” Conference, Smithers BC

Want to hear the full presentation? Audio here